Thursday 28 June 2012

Trent 301

This blog post has been updated  - check the new one on my website.

July 1975. In my small, anaglypta bedroom in West Bridgford, Nottingham, I was discovering all sorts of things, as teenagers do. And I discovered commercial radio.

The Bee Gees faded in and out, and a friendly voice told me I was listening to an 'IBA test'; long before I knew much about the Independent Broadcasting Authority, or indeed tests.  Although I was to be a suited regulator in later life, I was more fascinated by the Summer hits beaming out 'in stereo' across what were truly beautiful Fahrenheit months.  I'd rush out with a bowl to give to the local ice-cream man to fill with Vanilla, before dashing back to shout 'Do The Hustle' at just the right moment in that Van McCoy hit. Purple record label, I recall. 

 Behind the Big Door

Trent was the thirteenth independent local radio station to come on air, having won the franchise against 'Radio Robin Hood'; and it was big news in my home City.  The IBA observed there were "major differences between the two applications"; and that the successful applicant would need about £300k to come on air.  As it turned out, Trent was capitalised at £250k.  

The company itself enjoyed a variety of local shareholders, as the regulator demanded, including three trade unions, the Co-Op and the Nottingham Evening Post, for which a shareholding had to be reserved to help protect the press from this annoying newcomer. The original company had been formed in June 1962 as 'The Newark & Notts Broadcasting Company', at a time when those round the original board table expected commercial radio to debut a little earlier than it did. After a decade of presumably dull Board meetings, the company name change to 'Radio Trent Ltd' came in November 1973.

301 was based just yards from the most important amenity for any disc-jockey: Marks &
Sparks.  Its home, the rambling Burlington House on Castle Gate, was a 1794 pair of dwelling houses, which had been united for a host of purposes over the years, most notably as a women's hospital from 1875.  With two storeys having been added to the original two in the late 19th Century,  there was ample room for larger than life presenters.  The ample basement, carved out of Nottingham's caves was ideal for a studio suite which would pass muster with a crusty IBA engineer.  It had also been pretty useful as a morgue. 

Kid Jensen
The early commercial stations appeared to divide between those with a BBC gene, and those with a music radio influence.  Trent, like the mischievous Beacon in Wolverhampton, was the latter, with pirate DNA mixed with a healthy injection of Luxy and the biscuit factory network, UBN, thanks to the likes of  Bob Snyder as programme chief; Alan Bailey on the ads; and John Peters, Chris Baird and Peter Quinn on the air.  Kid Jensen, hotfoot from Radio Luxembourg added a 'known name'; and Jeff Cooper brought polish from Piccadilly and Radio 2.  Guy Morris and local lad Pete Wagstaff were the two fresh-faced recruits; and their later careers suggest they were wise choices.  Clive Tyldesley was a humble sports trainee. 

In the office, sat Trent's first Managing Director, Dennis MaitlandDennis was one of the generation who transferred from the pirate ships to the earliest land-based licensed commercial stations. His radio career had begun in 1964 on board Radio London, before moving to Radio Luxembourg; and eventually to Nottingham.

Trent was, accordingly, unlikely to be quite what the doctor ordered for those who expected the new generation of stations to have Beeb symptoms.  Whilst some of the new commercial stations recruited pseudo-continuity announcers to host programmes in stentorian fashion punctuated by sing-song jingles, Trent sounded like a decent music station from Day One.  In saying it was ahead of its time, it was really simply ahead of UK time.  

There was a target audience: 'a West Bridgford housewife aged 28'; jocks with great voices; great newsreaders (as well as journalists); well-produced local ads; and a music policy:

"Mainstream pop, over and towards contemporary sounds..forty oldies a day, mainly during the peak housewife listening times".

The station had decent jingles at launch too.  Apart from some forgetting to mention the station name. The catchy 'Sounds Like You Want To Hear' theme, composed by hit-maker Johnny Arthey, with vocalists such as Tony Burrows on vocals, was to be the soundtrack to Nottingham's warmest Summers.  The packages were sufficiently impressive to prompt me to phone-in to ask the Programme Director about them on his Boxing Day show in 1976.

Evolution & Revolution

The 75 team
Trent's early on-air smoothness was a contrast to behind the scenes turmoil.  Given these were the '70s, there was industrial strife, sit-ins, sackings and shenanigans.  Another S word was likely uttered in June 76, when the IBA, summoned the chairman, Norman Ashton-Hill (relation of impeccable newsreader Tina Hill) to its HQ. The regulator declined to 'roll' the station's franchise (before the days of licences): 

"You must please now take all practicable steps to achieve an effective resolution to the recent internal problems"*

The station moved speedily through a succession of very different Programme Controllers, each putting his spin on the station. Bob made way a little abruptly for Neil Spence (right), another ex-Radio London stalwart (as Dave Dennis), who then handed the leathern chair to Bev Smith (centre) from ATV; the latter two now, sadly, no longer with us. Having been Rock-oriented, and not hit-led, the station moved through an MOR phase and Popped out the other end.  What it did have though, surprising for its time, was a music policy of sorts; and a rare and healthy appreciation of what record sales figures did and did not represent.

For me, things got more exciting in 1977.  Maybe I was just growing up.  An influx of the likes of Len Groat and Steve Merike heralded a new excitement, complementing the stalwarts like John Peters and Guy Morris. Like most wannabe presenters, I subconsciously adopted a slice of each of them as my model.  It is always eerie when those who made you tingle as a youngster become your colleagues, and often friends.  

A Careline OB: Anne-Marie Minhall, me, Mandy Richardson
By the late '70s, Trent had begun to find itself on-air, and the audience graphs were trending well, although the station still attracted dirty looks from the regulator. Enter Ron Coles as MD and Chris Hughes, stage left, in his long coat, as Programme Controller to put the business in order in 1980.  As Ron Coles outlines here in one of my 'Conversations' series, Trent was at real risk of being shut down. 

1982 saw the station again losing money (-£73k). Staffing levels were scrutinised - and the former BBC duo layered on the substance the regulator sought, whilst retaining the station's character and professionalism. 

The Careline arrived, with tomes of talk about trestle tables and venereal disease, but a great training ground for the gifted Anne-Marie Minhall (now doing great things at Classic FM). 'Marie-Anne', in turn, taught the innocent me the delights of 'wine in a box' at their many parties. Our Features Department, which produced all manner of short items of 'meaningful speech', did not ever, to my knowledge, produce 3 minutes about 'mice in windmills' to keep the regulator happy, but that title is certainly more than apocryphal.

The music programming was tight, with the usual hourly format clocks, albeit drawn in Biro around a plate from the Trent first-floor kitchen.  Songs were selected from two wooden boxes in the studio, which would alternate show by show. Each was separated into: A (hit); B (softer and lower rotation); C (not quite good enough to be A or B); and D (oddities you missed out if you possibly could).  This was the analogue version of Selector, the software Trent would import with enthusiasm in the mid '80s, which churned out the song listings on a noisy dot matrix  printer.

If I were to suggest the station bought more jingles than any other station ever in the '80s, I'd likely be right. And they were good. Trent had moved from the early 'Sounds Like You Want to Hear' set; through Stephanie De Sykes singing 'All You Need' brightly like Abba; to the 'Sound It Out' shouty package; before graduating to lush Alfasound in 1980.  Package by package, and even singer by singer, their sound got closer to the US JAM sound. Eventually, that's what it became. Companies were required to spend a proportion of revenue to musicians, so that latent cash was deployed on paying talented cellists from Macclesfield to play on rather more jingles than might have otherwise been commissioned.

A First Trent Payslip

After abrupt, typed rejection letters from literally every station in the UK, I was taken on at Trent in 1980 by Len (pictured) after sending in a novel demo on a 5" spool bearing a neat DYMO label.  He persuaded the acting MD, Tony Churcher, that I might be a useful Broadcast Assistant (£3,047 p.a.).  Tony agreed 'so long as he starts to dress properly'.  I ran down Nottingham's Exchange Walk in delight, clad in vest, flowery shirt and duffel coat.  

Early duties included assembling the travel news: I can still recall the AA's phone number.  Why is that?  On my old manual typewriter, using two fingers, I'd also hammer out crucial details of the latest Ruddington jumble sales onto pink 'info cards'.  On exciting days, I'd make up Dale Winton's horoscopes, if the letter from the psychic failed to arrive.

The cue-burn of Dexy's Midnight Runners kicked off my sweaty-palm on-air debut in March 1980.  I was afforded a painful 45 minutes betwixt  the end of some football match (Ajax v Forest, I recall) and the next programme.  It was truly, truly awful.  Having been given my new radio name, I forgot it. On arrival home on the bus afterwards, my mother observed helpfully: 'it didn't go very well, did it'.  Whenever I hear presenters finding their feet on-air, I think back to those days and offer humble thanks that I was allowed to be awful for sufficiently long to get better.
Andy Miller

I was not the only one to change their name.  We had just emerged from the double-first name phase which had lent John Peters the name by which he garnered his reputation; and now we were into names which sounded right and would sing well on jingles. Len Groat, the man who'd taken his name from Newcastle's Groat market when at Metro Radio, had the bright idea of adopting local place names.  Hence Gary Burton was named after Burton on Trent.  Any jobbing jock doing a few overnight shifts risked leaving with a new name.  The policy became a rich seam of amusement for 'Head of Culture', John Shaw, whom we sadly lost in 2013.

If one were to write a drama about radio, each day at Trent back then would provide ample material.   The place was riddled with real characters.  Not least Dale, who would arrive seconds before his show, his  large frame clad in an army jump-suit.  Even back then, he was designing his future part in TV history and, to his credit, he has realised his dream to the letter.  

By the mid 80s, Trent was swinging; and a station to which everyone aspired. Dale departed suddenly in a typically dramatic fashion; a tale told with a flourish in his book. I was elevated to his hallowed turf, having presented the music and talk mongrel lunchtime show  for a couple of years.  I delivered a honeyed and indulgent morning show, yet one which, in time, I too would be tearfully sorry to leave.

By day, I was the bleached blond disc jockey, commanding huge audiences, wearing a blue silken jacket with my name embroidered on the nipple.  By night, I'd manage to scrape a bus fare home to mum and dad's.  Mum seemed to feel OK about my chosen career, although was not much impressed with the Nolans and Dooleys; or missing her Waggoners' Walk. She was decidedly more impressed when I was given the job as the VO for the Co-Op in-store announcements.  When out shopping with her bosom buddy, Joy, she'd linger deliberately under a convenient ceiling-speaker and smile proudly.

Challenges and choices

Industrial action featured a lot in Trent's early days, much as it did at LBC and Beacon, thanks to national union agreements and growing pay scales combining with regulatory headaches and friction with intolerant overseas investors.  During an ABS strike in my time, the station was run by famously run by 'management' for a few heady days.  The MD, Ron Coles, was on 'news duty'.  One of his bulletins reported 'well, we've phoned round the emergency services and all is quiet'.  No news is good news, I guess.  As an innocent , nervous 19 year old, I was warned I'd risk my career forever if I passed through the picket line; whilst the MD called me at home suggesting I either show up for work or join the union.

The earlier strikes were more serious affairs, very much of a '70s flavour.  The video below shows the placard-wielding strikers and a 1976 lock out of both presenters and journalists when they reported for work after a pay dispute. On one divisive occasion, food parcels had to be smuggled in to the building under siege, to fuel those keeping the station on air.

Dave Newman headed the newsroom: a 'posh' ex Daily Mail journalist of stature, who would demand that, for the bigger stories, we 'take the wagon'.  'The wagon' being a converted dirty white Vauxhall Chevette OB vehicle with a bent aerial, awash with Spangles wrappers. 

Canadian, Jon Darby, was another long-haired member of the '70s news-team, perhaps best-remembered for the day he clashed with Hughie Green, fresh from the talent show 'Opportunity Knocks'.  

A Trent tradition led to every departing journalist affixing the DYMO label from their old pigeon hole to a long list on the side of a bookshelf, with their time served scribbled alongside. One read 'three hours'. She'd gone on out on a story, never to return.  Breakfast newsreader Lee Peck was another infamous news-reader.  Very popular in the building and living the life, he'd struggle in to read the 6.00 update, then catch up on a little sleep, spreadeagled right across the large news desk, until he'd dash down for the 6.30.

The daily off-air chemistry between Dale and Peter Tait, the latter sadly lost tragically early to a brain tumour, was a delight to witness. Dale would  wave his right arm dismissively as Peter delivered a funny bitch: 'Peeeeee - taaaaaaa. If only you were that funny on the air".

The 1983 Trent team
My old yellow phone, with its tangled coily lead and  dial, would ring at 1030 a.m. with Dale summoning me to segue three songs in his show as he disappeared for ablutions. To the listeners, the burst of uninterrupted music was trumpeted as the 'The Coffee Break'. Music segues were rare back then; and as Steve Merike pointed out, if you played two songs back to back, presenters and listeners suspected you were ill. The segue on British radio only really played a prominent role following the influence of '80s offshore pirate, Laser 558. Indeed, it was that station which prompted Trent to experiment with hour long segue-driven shows: 'The Music Jam'!

Trent boasted a huge vinyl record library (or gram library, as the BBC refugees called it). The room was overseen for many years by the indomitable Jane Morrell, self-dubbed 'The Wicked Witch of the Library'. Most of the hit songs had got 'lost' over the years, so it was useful that the  majority of us had  assembled our own vinyl record collections. Others resorted to the library's paltry pickings, which explains why Tony Lyman would play '7,000 Dollars and You' repeatedly by the Stylistics and none of their bigger hits.  Whilst we were given free choice of oldies (but instructed about the decade from which to choose); the novelty soon wore off.

Aside from the playlist shows, Trent boasted a gamut of evening specialist shows, from rock to jazz, from MOR to Country.  The ever-flexible, velvet-voiced Bill Bingham was called upon to host both the Classical show - and the punk show. The only one of these non-mainstream shows to continue long beyond this phase  was the Country show, which owed something to the genre's popularity and something to the fact that the show's presenter, Tim Rogers, also doubled as a high-billing sales exec who always secured a decent sponsorship.

The station rejected charts at the outset, later adopting a novel chart which started at Number
Gary Burton
One and worked backwards.  In time, its own Trent Top 30 arrived, echoed later in the day eventually by the Network Chart, which brought the voice of Kid Jensen back on 301 after an eight year gap. John Peters hosted the Trent chart for many years, and later Danny Cox. It was to achieve one of the peak audiences of the week.  As ever with charts, timing was crucial, given you must leave time to play all the top hits in their entirety. Timing calculations back then were manual, and a real challenge, perfectly discharged by Messrs Peters and Cox.  

One other chart challenge was tracking down all the singles required, given that Trent wisely did not play them all in normal programming.  John would become more and more irate if he could not find the ones needed.  On one occasion, believing the Number 27  to be in a locked filing cabinet, he pulled off the front of it with brute force. 

Jane Morrell
'Needletime' was a prickly subject. The copyright bodies imposed tough limits on how much music stations could play.  That policy was one reason why most stations, even the  BBC nationals, closed down at night.  Whilst the Beeb had the might and influence to arrange live sessions with big name artists; commercial stations just had to plan well.  

Accordingly, on October 4th 1980, when Trent took the 24 hour plunge, we were afforded three or four 'proper songs' to play each hour overnight, supplemented by lots of off-mic feature tapes from lucky syndication companies, and a box of 'non needletime' tracks.  These ranged from 'I'm Not in Love' played by a symphony orchestra; to a few hits on obscure labels.  I looked forward to playing Mississippi by Pussycat every night on the Sonet label as I hosted that show, as I so often did.  The ancient needletime restrictions, originally framed to preserve the income for live musicians as radio itself was born, were to last until July 1990.

The regular presenters on that overnight shift were Colin Bower and Viv Evans.  Colin, a jobbing actor who famously popped up as Hilda Ogden's insurance man in Coronation Street, boasted a booming and perfect 'announcer' voice.  He was known for wandering up the stairs from the studio during a song to converse with the daytime team as they arrived.  A great story teller off-air, he'd be half way through telling you a lengthy story when you'd hear the song peter out on-air.  After a few seconds of silence, bar the hiss and clicks of the run out groove, Colin would saunter downstairs, and slide the fader open to back announce the song.  Colin loved the older material, but was less familiar with the newer artists. I recall with fondness, a reference to 'the new song from Shady' (Sade).  

Colin Bower

Singalong Colin was a real character, albeit eventually not quite suited to the contemporary station Trent was turning into.  I vividly recall arriving to take over from him one day at 6.00 am, so see him doing his final link in his Duffel coat, the studio almost in darkness, with the angle-poise lamp on an upturned waste paper bin. The lights had fused, and he needed to rush off swiftly after the show as he had another job to go to.  Trent always sounded a million dollars, whatever was going on behind the scenes.  Thanks to Colin too for sharing with me the trick, which he suggested Guy Morris had shown him, about a convenient makeshift loo just behind the fire exit.

Like many stations back then, Trent was huge in its City. Reception, with its obscene blue and white curtains was always brimming with visiting listeners in headscarves; and presenters were invited to be the 'star' guests at all manner of local events .  I fell some way behind John and Dale in the pecking order, so if they were unavailable, I hopped on the bus to conduct gala and coffee morning openings. We'd sign photographs and pose for pics and draw the inevitable lengthy raffle.  I recall one baby contest I helped to judge on a really hot day, where I was quietly asked to pick a racial balance in finalists.

The level of engagement from Trent listeners was remarkable.  One loyal fan used to write to John Peters just about every day.  Others would send in presents and bake fairy cakes.  Peter Tait taught me 'never eat food from listeners'.  He often seemed to.

Some listeners got too close, and I was not the only one pursued uncomfortably on occasions. One started to write daily letters on perfumed Basildon Bond of more than twenty pages in length. As time went on, the correspondence became more and more explicit, until the point when even diagrams began to be drawn.  Another persistent listener kicked the security guard when he tried to stop her getting behind the main door to meet up with me.

The darkest period of Trent's history fell in March 1985.  When rock show presenter, Graham Neale arrived at work saying that his off-and-on lovely girlfriend, Lynn Goldingay,
had gone missing, we all made the sorts of reassuring noises one does.  I commented on-air the next day glibly, though, that he'd looked a little strange when I saw him ashen-faced, waiting for the lift, without shoes and carrying a Hoover.  It transpired he had killed the smiling Lynn, whom we knew well from her receptionist stints, and was hiding the evidence.  Graham later confessed; and committed suicide in Lincoln prison. Lynn's new partner, Duncan, also took his own life.  The story was reported by Steve Kyte on Trent's own news within the show Graham normally hosted. I was on relief duty that day; and made much use of segues.  As I recall, only the 'dad' of the team, John Peters, ever broached the issue on-air; and his words were typically well-chosen.  It was to be the the first of two occasions where Castle Gate had housed a murderer within its walls.
Spreading its Wings

In securing the neighbouring Leicester Sound franchise from the detritus of Centre Radio; launching the Trent 945 Derbyshire spin-off; turning on a huge 24 hour AM station; before merging with the West Midlands stations; then floating on the stock market in 1990; Trent became the heart of the largest radio group outside London.  It could have emerged as the GWR, Capital or Global of today, but for a different throw of the dice.  

The end moments of this ninety minute lunchtime documentary I assembled in 1985 tell of the ambition at that stage. Its indulgent length says something of what we could get away with on-air back then. 

At the time, Dale's departure was too recent to cover as comfy history.  Dale's book tells the story though.  And Ron will tell his too, if you ask him, I suspect.  Both, now, with a smile.

Last year, Ron Coles explained to me just how challenging the Derbyshire extension proved to be, thanks to regulatory complications. 

The extension into Leicester came as the City's first commercial station, Centre Radio, failed.  Following the frustration of a failed rescue bid, Trent purchased Centre's luxurious home from the liquidators, in the expectation it would be awarded the new franchise, or it would have something useful to sell to a rival. The former occurred; and Leicester Sound launched in September '84. 

Trent was able extend into Derbyshire with less risk; its franchise area was simply extended by the IBA at a time it was thought no sane person would apply for a licence just for that rural County.  In launching 'Trent 945', as a part-day opt-out from 'Trent 999' in Nottingham, Trent unwittingly started the brand spread we know today.  The Derby station was later to be branded 'Ram FM' under GWR management.

Diversification into Derby and  Leicester brought the challenges of networking during shared programmes.  The presenter sitting in Nottingham would broadcast to three different areas, with separate ads and jingles fired to the different transmitters.  Whilst commonplace now, it was ground-breaking back then.  What's more, it was all handled manually, with each individual item laced onto a separate tape cartridge.  Programmes operated technically at the very edge of what was humanly possible, with presenter losing pounds running around to select and replace the hundreds of cartridges from Lazy Susan in the course of a show.  

If that was not enough, we split links too.  I recall getting in at 430 a.m. for the Saturday
Dale in Prod 2
Derby/Nottingham shared breakfast show to record bits for both shows which I could fire in as live.  As a typical jock, I'd relish the challenge and took pride in making things as complex as I could.  Only the anoraks knew how much trouble I'd gone to in pursuit of a mention for a Uttoxeter garden party.  

Trent chose to take early advantage of the regulator's 'use it or lose it' steer and separated its AM from its FM in October 1988, creating 'GEM.AM', a name coined by Len Groat as a clever acronym for the Great East Midlands. I still have a logo mocked up for the name 'Gold', which was almost adopted, before MD Ron Coles blinked behind his large specs told us to go back and think again. Of course, in later life, the station has become 'Gold'.  

The format was oldies, spiced with an ocean of fresh jingles sung over groovy PAMS tracks; and GEM.AM became the first UK 24 hour totally separate AM oldies station.  County Sound Gold had taken the plunge first, in June 1988, with GEM then being the first total split - and both before Capital Gold in November.  John Peters bid farewell to his breakfast FM audience and transferred to sail on the medium wave. 

The GEM launch day was memorable for all of us, as we sought to deliver Ron's dream of a dawn Olympic run round the East Midlands culminating in a firework moment in bustling Nottingham. The reality on a cold Autumn day was more prosaic with good old Trevor Hawes and colleagues running shifts whilst we followed behind in the battered Leicester Sound nicotine-coloured Cortina, arriving at a Broad Marsh Centre car park to be greeted by one client, two listeners and a lone firework.  On-air it sounded a million dollars.

GEM.AM was to be a huge success, attaining impressive audiences.  As was the case with others, notably Magic 828 in Leeds and Xtra AM  in Birmingham, the tightly-defined oldies services were to fare better than their FM counterparts. The UK's FM stations arguably hurried too far to the contemporary left and acted as if a house from which someone has removed a load-bearing wall, as they lost established presenters - and the Beatles, Cliff & Elvis. Trent FM was to be fortunate, however, in that it was not to incur focused mainstream FM music radio competition until the 106/Century regional East Midlands licence evolved into Heart in 2005.  

Trent presenters came and went. It was always a station to aspire to. Remarkably, many of the presenters over the years were home-grown.  Derby's Dick Stone and Gary Burton, Newark's Anne-Marie Minhall, Wymeswold's John  Shaw, Nottingham's Paul Robey and the inimitable Rob Wagstaff, brother of Pete who'd been there in the early days. 'Rob's Nightlife Gang' was a great example of how to seize and involve a generation in the mid evening daypart. Rob, in turn, involved youngsters in that show who themselves embarked on a radio career, such as Richard Murdoch, later to become a gifted BBC producer on major shows.

Solder and Cigarette Ash

The majority of shows pulsed from the roomy Studio A; a darkened underground hovel, smelling of cigarette smoke and decorated with red and brown acoustic tiles. It was illuminated by an angle-poise and a touch of daylight escaping down the fire escape. The studio was equipped with Technics turntables (after the Gates were retired); ITC triple stacks; and a sturdy and expensive Neve mixer with a puzzling 'solo' facility,where songs were pre-faded with the fader up.  The mic sound powered through and was the best I've ever heard on any station.  Again oddly, however, it required the ritual of a sticky label being stuck two thirds of the way up the fader to get the optimum level.  

Through a couple of heavy red doors lay MCR - the 'Master Control Room', so-called as the designers originally felt that all signals from the main studio would need to pass through a second studio to be monitored by someone other than a disc jockey before transmission. MCR became a back-up and production studio, although it did boast a telephone balance unit the size of a fridge. 

Through the racks room, Al Bailey's commercial 'Prod 1' studio (which was later to bear his name in honour) was well equipped with wisely padlocked equipment; and Production 2 completed the Trent facilities, with an odd mixer and a trio of battered tape machines for those more sophisticated effects.  Studios were always in demand and whenever an irate memo arrived with some new booking system, one knew that there'd been yet another fracas.

Geoff Woodward, sadly no longer with us, headed a large team of engineers from the start. A little fiery at times, but hugely knowledgeable, he insisted on the very best facilities for Trent, and was very much of the old  school.  

DAMS, Trent's first digital playout system, for ads only, was installed in 1985.  The poor thing got too hot when originally installed and refused to function. The project was to take many more months of West & Woodward prodding before it functioned successfully. It was the first of many bits of new kit to be nailed onto the original woodwork over the years, the end result being a metaphor for the complex commercial radio network itself.

Pennies from Heaven

I regret now how little I knew of Trent's sales operation, which had numbered five executives at launch.  Back then, 'the sales team' sat behind closed doors; and commercial airtime was similarly insulated from the remainder of programming on-air. We heard tales though, including the one about the exec who used to cut the hair of the Sales Director in his office.

Trent turned over £326k in 1976, rising to £460k and £612k in the next two years, cracking the million mark by 1979, three years after Piccadilly and Clyde.

We humble jocks were handed a hand-written and photocopied ad-log listing the ads to be played.  Until the IBA uncovered the 'co-funding' (sponsorship) loophole under duress, there was no other commercial content within programmes.

Trent was confined to nine minutes of airtime advertising per hour at the outset,  and floggings in Brompton Road were administered by the IBA to any stations which breached the limit.  Back then, listeners had few stations to flick to when the breaks began, so the ads are remembered as fondly as the presenters. Quality was high, thanks to Al Bailey at the outset, and the growing team of impressive writers. Originally, a separate  We recall the great Cameo Cameras ad;  Terry Thorne shouting his own offers  at Fossett and Thorne; Barrie Noble; and the gifted Evening Post award-winning 'elephant ad'.

Presenters were blissfully unaware of the company's financial position - until recession bit and jobs were lost.  Trent boasted around fifteen journalists at the outset; and even by my time in the '80s, the newsroom was complemented by the features department of a further six.  We did not suffer today's DAB transmission overheads; AM brought sufficient audiences to justify its platform expense; competitive marketing and competitor talent battles were absent; there were no 'online' bills or revenue threats; the BBC was a less competitive force; and we were the only station in town.  Predator companies could not pounce to acquire; and 'excess profit' was shaved off and handed back to the regulator for distribution to worthy radio projects. For those who had invested in the early stations from their own pockets, this was a peculiar form of capitalism.

Enjoy here, the 'station sound' in its formative years. A fifteen minute gallop through the seventies and eighties, hardly pausing for breath.

On Reflection

On-air, Trent surfed periods of greatness, and its grey spells. So many broadcasters have a station they regard with the fondness I have for Trent.  Some stations just have a 'spirit' that no management, identity or individual presenters can change.

Long after my time, the station had more great spells and was regarded as a great - and profitable - station.  Awards aplenty too, thanks to the likes of Jo & Twiggy, whose breakfast act reigned for a decade.  Twiggy waved farewell two and a half years after the station changed brands in June 2013.  Mark Dennison ruled mid-mornings for a generation. 

If you really think, though, that everything back in the old days on any station was perfect; just try listening back objectively to cassettes of the over-long links and successive songs you just don't recognise.   

Non-competitive days, with BBC Radio 1 marooned on AM and BBC Radio 2 playing pan-pipes, made for a simpler life.   But, even back then, there were years when the station lost money.

We were the brilliant corner shop; and there was yet no Tesco. Nor Sainsbury. There was an ASDA; but it was a long drive down a bumpy medium wave.  Evidence suggests that breakfast shows today on most well-programmed stations are much more focused on what the listener wants than they were in the early ILR days, and certainly more carefully crafted.  Let's be honest, show prep in the '80s did not take long.  

In the end, the audience decide.   After an understandably slow start, Trent began to show progress in audience figures by '77; and by Spring '86, it was punching a healthy 37% reach in its area according to JICRAR, then the audience measurement currency.

Interestingly, looking back, even when simulcast on AM and FM - and the lone provider of mainstream music on FM - it was still then just losing the reach battle against an AM-only Radio 1. Its first taste of commercial competition was self-induced, via its own AM service. This gave a taste of things to come as Trent, like so many heritage  ILR stations, was challenged to find a definition for its FM service, alongside the beautifully-defined AM formats.  

In 2015, UK commercial radio overall now attracts around 34m listeners a week (W2 2015, Rajar), almost double the figure it enjoyed 25 years ago. 

In the East Midlands, twenty years on (W2 2015), a further 440,000  listeners turned to commercial radio each week, compared with the last Jicrar survey (Wave II, 1992). 

These comparisons are apples and pears They conveniently ignore the Jicrar/Rajar
changes; population growth and any TSA changes; but they certainly take into account there are a lot more stations around. 

This spartan single page from the Trent JICRAR Spring '86 results illustrates that very point.  The comparable 'station by station' comparison in 21st Century audience figures stretches to three pages. 

And finally

Trent and I parted in 1987.  She'd been my first love.  This is my catharsis.  If you have more memories, "call me now on Nottingham 581881, that's 0602 581881". Or, more usefully, just write a note below this blog.

For me, and for many Castle Gaters, Trent's memories will live on forever.  Thankfully, there's no lack of people getting just as intoxicated growing up listening to today's stations.  For my part,  I'm as excited about the present and about the future as I was in 1980.
Paul Robey and I in derelict Castle Gate in 2008

The Trent years ended at the beginning of 2011.  Her final Programme Director was Dick Stone, whose broadcasting life had begun at Castle Gate. 'Dick in the Morning' was the last of just seven architects of programming in Trent's eventful history.  

Dick carried out the union of Trent, Ram and Leicester Sound under the well-programmed Capital brand as an East Midlands regional station; and took commercial radio into a new era. Mind you, judging by the number of mentions of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire back in the 70s and 80s, as an only child back then, Trent had always put its arm round the whole region.

The  UK's thirteenth commercial station had adopted the guise of the second.

Forty years on, Capital now broadcasts, alongside Smooth, from bright new premises just a few feet from the ancient building.   The station's now owned by the UK's biggest radio player, Global Radio.  Much as I treasure the Trent memories, I believe the scale and ambition of companies like Global is much-needed if commercial radio is to continue to thrive, as the radio medium faces its most significant challenges since the arrival of television. 

Trent's former home on Castle Gate is now once again full of life, thanks to the Base 51 project, and boasts  new NGY Myplace studio facilities in its basement.  Sadly, the famous front door is now redundant.  For the many folk who passed through that door over the years, the Trent years will never be forgotten.  Always colourful, always dramatic; and a certain spirit which transcended its many different eras and owners.  Those days are remembered fondly too by listeners of a certain age, who readily confess, as do I, to having listened to it "before it started officially".

There are loads more Trent memories in my book 'Radio Moments': 50 years of radio - life on the inside. 

A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

(above) The Trent Years - Part One  - 12'
(above) The Trent Years - Part Two - 14'
(above) Watch: Silent ATV footage of industrial action in July 1976 (courtesy MACE) - 27"

The history of Trent's premises on Castle Gate

*Sounds of Your LIfe - Tony Stoller- The history of ILR

Al Bailey's memories

The 2016 reunion - We all met again - 40 years on

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